Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759

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Since its first publication in Paris in 1959, Naked Lunch has received both praise and censure. While noted authors and critics such as John Ciardi, Norman Mailer, and Mary McCarthy have applauded Naked Lunch as a novel of genius and terrible beauty, its publication in the United States in 1962 was met with seizure by the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs on the grounds it was pornographic. Naked Lunch was found to be obscene by a Massachusetts Superior Court in 1965, a decision that was later overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

Naked Lunch is a disjointed account of the horrors of a junkie’s addiction, withdrawal, and cure. William Burroughs, one of the original Beat writers, arrived in Tangier, Morocco, in 1953, after spending months in the jungles of South America in search of the hallucinogenic plant Yage. At that time Burroughs was heavily addicted to narcotics such as morphine and codeine. He was perhaps drawn to Tangier because of its reputation as a zone of permissiveness where drugs were plentiful and expenses were low. Tangier was an International Zone, where there was unregulated free enterprise. It was also known to expatriate writers and artists as a sanctuary where they could live without being scrutinized by the authorities. Once settled in Tangier, Burroughs tried to write, but his drug addiction made that process both painful and difficult. As he attempted various cures, his writing slowly progressed. The novel that began to develop would be a narrative based on his addiction and withdrawal and his impressions of Tangier.

Burroughs first compiled a large volume of notes, which contained his travel and drug experiences, hallucinations, dreams, and satirical fantasies about American society. To complete the manuscript, Burroughs had to face his addiction and undergo drug treatment. While he made various attempts to withdraw in Tangier, he was finally cured after seeking the help of Dr. John Yerbury Dent of London. His friends Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Ansen visited him in Tangier in 1957, where they helped type, select, and edit the final manuscript and prepare it for publication.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs tells his story metaphorically through a series of episodes, visions, and myths. These fantasies work to describe a state of mind rather than create a traditional narrative. The technique used in Naked Lunch is similar to collage or montage. Scenes, episodes, and routines are juxtaposed in a way that makes it possible to read them in almost any order. The episodes are indicated by titles that refer to the subject or theme. The episodes vary from two or three pages in length to more than twenty pages. Within the episode there is usually an introduction in which characters, setting, or a situation is defined, followed by improvisations that may end in a violent or dramatic climax.

The main setting of Naked Lunch is Interzone, a city based on a composite of the places where Burroughs had gone in search of drugs: New York, Louisiana, South America, and Tangier. Interzone is inhabited by hustlers, addicts, con men, losers, and petty officials. These inhabitants spend their time taking drugs, having pornographic sex, and engaging in sleazy commerce. There are political and economic conspiracies everywhere, usually made up of groups involved in a struggle for power and control over the “consumers.” The control the conspirators exercise is based on the consumer’s need for drugs, sex, or power. Through the many satirical, hallucinatory scenes, Burroughs exposes the hypocrisy and destructiveness of American society. Doctors, bureaucrats, and politicians are the chief examples of the power elite who manipulate the masses. For example, Dr. Benway and Dr. Berger create “healthy” men by torturing and brainwashing them. The three main political parties are like parasites, seeking to gain control over Interzone through demoniac possession.

In Naked Lunch, Burroughs uses a variety of literary forms derived from popular culture, including newspapers, advertising, magazines, comics, paperbacks, movies, radio, and television. His characters are all pop-culture types: the crazed doctor, secret agent, private eye, gangster, drug pusher, mad scientist, vampire, and zombie. Bill Lee and A. J. represent Burroughs’s alter egos. The episodes are arranged in random order, to create an improvised text that can be entered at any point. While the untraditional, shocking nature of the subject matter and the experimental form of the novel resulted in many negative reviews when Naked Lunch was published, there was much praise for its boldness and unrelenting power. Naked Lunch has been vindicated as a work of literary merit that is still capable of artistic and moral revelation.